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Learning from One of the Best of the 1960s70s80s Political Organizations
review by Kim Scipes
Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969-1986, by Michael Stau-denmaier, AK Press, Oakland, USA, 2012, 387 pages, ISBN: 13: 978-1-84935-097-6. $19.95.
As Max Elbaum pointed out in his acclaimed 2002 book, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, there was more to the 1960s than just dope smoking and free love. Importantly, there was the New Communist Movement (NCM) that developed in an effort to revolutionarily trans-form the United States from what it was to what it was imagined it could be. Elbaum took a critical look at the NCM, but he all-but-ignored arguably one of the most important organizations that developed within the NCM, the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO).
However, Michael Staudenmaier has now given us an excellent, critical and in-depth examination of STO. This is an important organization that Stauden-maier believes has considerable relevance today, and he clearly wrote it with the idea of understanding STO to the greatest extent possible so as to provide on-going guidance for revolutionaries today. Impor-tantly, and allowing a level of detachment that makes
his study even more relevant today, Staudenmaier is not a veteran of the 60s, although hes been politi-cally engaged in the anarchist world for a consider-able number of years.
STO, Staudenmaier asserts, organized its work over the 15 or so years it existed in three main areas: prioritizing workplace organizing (approximately 197075), anti-imperialist solidarity (197680), and then direct-action, tendency-building from the late 1970s to its demise by 1986). There are important things to learn from these experiences, and the work produced by this small organization (which never hadmore than about 50 people) over the years is impres-sive.
What makes STO so important in my viewpoint,is its focus on theoretical work: at best, their theoreti-cal understanding contributed to their practice and their practice, in turn, was reflected upon and then utilized to confirm/falsify and/or develop their theo-ry. I have not heard of nor seen anywhere near this level of intellectual work by any comparable organi-zation of that period, regardless of size. In other words, in an era in which other Leninist organiza-tions dogmatically asserted the correctness of their respective political line, Sojourner Truth discussed and debated theoretical issues publicly, and sought to
take greatest advantage of its extensive and often-times innovative practice. Staudenmaier notes,
On an intellectual level, several key themes re-cur throughout the groups history. In every area and at every point in time, STO emphasized the importance of mass action, the rejection of legal constraints on struggle, the question of con-sciousness within the working class, the central
role of white supremacy to the continued misery of life under capitalism, and the ne-cessity of autonomy for exploited and op-pressed groups, not only from capitalism and white supremacy but also from their supposed representatives, various self-pro-
claimed vanguards, and any other condescend-ing saviors (p. 4).And Staudenmaier argues two essential theoret-
ical innovations in particular marked STOs contribu-tion to the revolutionary left (p. 4). He explains, the group articulated Italian Marxist Antonio Gram-scis understanding of hegemony as an analysis of dual consciousness, arguing that the working class displayed both a broad acceptance of the status quo and an embryonic awareness of its own revolutionarypotential as a class, (p. 4) and they presented an
analysis of white-skin privilege as a bulwark of whitesupremacy (p. 5). He adds that they later added the concept of autonomy to their theoretical universe.
And, when differing levels of intellectual devel-opment threatened the integrity of the organization, the organization consciously decided to address this
Green Social Thought 61: A Magazine of Synthesis and Regeneration, Spring 2013 43
I have not seen this level of intellectual work byany comparable organization of that period
This was an organization that consciouslyused theory to elevate its practice and the
intellectual capabilities of its members.
theoretical gap by educating its members in politi-cal theory, transforming members into theorists to supplement (not replace) their practical work, reduc-ing internal differences. This was an organization thatconsciously used theory not to dissuade dissidents, but to elevate its practice and the intellectual capabil-ities of its members. (Obviously, STOs small size over the years indicates that considerable number of self-styled revolutionaries did not value or see the
need for this, but STOs approach to this internal problem is another example of its innovative ap-proach.)
The book examines this interaction between practice-theory-practice over the groups history. Thisis done with considerable sympathy to STOs efforts, yet with a critical perspective that refuses to give them a pass for their mistakes or their, at times, less-than-saintly efforts, both externally and internally. Staudenmaier is particularly astute in addressing the implications of their theoretical developments, some which were brilliant, while others were not consid-ered.
He has gotten access to a considerable amount of STOs materialboth publically disseminated andinternally confinedand examines theoretical de-bates, internal conflicts, and changing political ap-proaches. (A considerable amount of this original material is currently available on-line at www.so-journertruth.net.) He has interviewed a number of people who were active at different timesboth those who left the organization and those who stayedand at differing levels of power andinfluence within the group, combiningunderstandings from these oral inter-views with published material. His ma-terial on the internal life of the organiza-tion, and how it affected members andothers, is important.
The first eight chapters are bril-liant: Staudenmaier handles an amazingamount of material deftly and withpanache, and he gives about as full of anaccounting of an avowedly revolution-ary organization as can probably bedone by an outsider. In addition to theorganization itself, he carefully contex-tualizes it in the times, and offers astutecomments in relation to other organiza-tions of the New Communist Move-ment.
Further, I give him tremendouscredit for weaving his accounts of theo-ry and practice together innovatively.And as one who had some contact with
STO over the late 1970s-early 80sbut never joinedI had a hard time putting the book down, and I consumed its 333 pages carefully over a three-day period (in addition to work-related responsibilities). In short, I give the overall bulk of the book the high-est accolade one author can give another: I wish I had written this book.
That being saidand sincerely meantI was disappointed in his concluding chapter where he tried
to extract lessons from STOs experiences for todays revolutionaries. As stated above, Stau-denmaiers political experience has been in the revolutionary anarchist movement. Obviously for one from this background, he challenges STOs Leninism, however innovative and non-dogmatic it was, and especially its theoreti-cians reliance on quotations from Lenin in their theoretical debates.
Nonetheless, he recognizes the strength of the groups broadmindedness towards theory, noting STO had three distinct and competing leaders who routinely disagreed with each other on major issues, and each of them was frequently challengedby newer members who had their own theoretical in-sights (p. 315). Further, he noted that STOs theoret-ical work was based on the writings of Marx and Lenin, but supplemented by thinking by Gramsci, W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James, which were any-thing but commonplace touchstones among the revo-lutionary left at the time (p. 315). Obviously, STO was not a typical Leninist organization by any stretchof the imagination, whether in range of thinkers con-sidered or by the amount of internal democracy where members were encouraged to discuss and de-bate the issues before the organization and move-ment.
All of that being recognized, however, Stauden-maier does not push himself theoretically around twoissues. He does not question Marxism itself, when hisown material suggests that he should have done so:
could Marxism, based on the inter-action between forces of produc-tion and relations of production, explain white supremacy and espe-cially the concept of white skin privilege from within its theoreticalparameters?
Considering the importance ofMarxism and challenging white supremacy to the organization, should not this combination been examined, especially so many years after the demise of the orga-nization? Or could it explain male supremacy? I dont think Marxism can explain either white or male supremacy within its theoretical parameters, but in any case, Stau-denmaier does not even question it,nor what might it mean for self-identified Marxists to transgress the founders limitations, seeing
44 Green Social Thought 61: A Magazine of Synthesis and Regeneration, Spring 2013
STOs theoretical work was based on Marx andLenin, but supplemented by thinking by
Gramsci, W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James
Marxism as necessary but not sufficient for their pur-poses?
Second, and perhaps even more immediately im-portant for his chosen tasks, Staudenmaier fails to in-terrogate the concepts of revolution, and revolu-tionary change. He uses these concepts uncritically, but what do they mean? What does it mean to as-sume the mantle of revo